A's historic win (cont.)
What lingers today above all else is the youthful joy bursting forth in the Oakland sunshine Wednesday. Nobody saw this coming -- not even the smartest people in the Oakland organization, especially not when the team as late as June 1 was eight games worse than .500 and hitting like some lousy team from the deadball era, scraping by at .208.
Last year Oakland lost 88 games, after which it traded three of its top four starting pitchers (Trevor Cahill, Gonzalez and Guillermo Moscoso) and its closer (Andrew Bailey) and put together a team stocked with rookies and never-weres with the smallest payroll in baseball but for San Diego while playing in the rent-a-wreck of ballparks in an age where driveway envy has fueled an enormous construction boom just about everywhere else.
The team was lousy from the start, but kept shedding players and adding others, whether because of poor performance, injuries or various maladies. The spring training plans included keys roles for Manny Ramirez, Bartolo Colon, Kurt Suzuki, Brandon McCarthy, Brandon Allen, Kila Ka'aihue, Jemile Weeks, Eric Sogard . . . all of them gone or insignificant by various means by the time the team was a September juggernaut sweeping the weirdly tight Texas Rangers.
The Athletics managed to get their team batting average up to .239 by the end -- which still makes this the eighth-worst-hitting outfit in franchise history, and the other seven in their company were downright awful, with none of them closer than 12 games to .500. But, hey, with home runs, walkoff wins, solid defense and a young pitching staff in which Oakland threw caution to the wind, who cares about batting average?
While the Stephen Strasburg Shutdown became a major second half story in Washington, the Athletics kept running young pitchers out to the mound with no governors. Jarrod Parker, who was born four months after Strasburg, has rolled up 202 innings -- way beyond his high of 136.1 last year. The A's also pushed Tommy Milone, 25 (190 innings, a jump of 15.2 innings), A.J. Griffin, 24 (181.2, +21) and Daniel Straily (191.1, +30.2).
Reliever Sean Doolittle, who never before had pitched as a pro, pitched in each of the last four games and 59 in all between the minors and majors. Rookie Ryan Cook was used eight times in the last 11 games, including five in a row to end the season.
The A's had been at the forefront of protecting young pitchers with the way they carefully developed Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder a decade or so ago. So closely did they monitor their work that they wouldn't let the pitchers throw to bases during fielding drills -- the better to save precious bullets. This year they blew up industry convention and just kept handing the ball to young pitchers. And it worked with a division title.
Who knows where this joyful madness goes? Last year Tampa Bay was the flavor of the month after that crazy win in Game 162 -- and yet the Rays were gone in a flash, losing in the ALDS in four quick games to Texas. Their inclusion in the 2012 postseason is hard to remember even just a year later.
Then again, St. Louis, another team that gained entry via Game 162 last year, won a world championship by nearly the narrowest of margins possible. They lost seven games, one fewer than the maximum possible for a championship, and three times survived being one strike away from elimination.
The only rule is that there are no rules this time of year. Momentum changes in the course of games. But no matter what becomes of Oakland, the Athletics -- and to some degree, Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati, too -- already have inspired fans not just in the Bay Area, but also in places such as Toronto, Cleveland, San Diego, Kansas City, Seattle and Queens. You're never as far from the postseason as what we used to think.
Oakland's place in history already is secure, with the chance to grow it. The A's joined the 2006 Twins and 1951 Giants as the only teams never to hold first place alone until the last day of the season. And they did it on the 51st anniversary of when those '51 Giants took first for themselves on the Shot Heard 'Round the World, the iconic home run hit by Bobby Thomson. These are the moments that endure. These are the times that remind us why we love baseball.